Monday, April 30, 2007

Campaign going ballistic

Australia’s PM John Howard has not yet signaled a date for the federal election, and as his right, will not do so until the last possible moment.

But the campaign is well under way with Howard and his opposition opponent Rudd launching frenzied media campaigns over the weekend.

The trigger for ramping up the campaign was the Australian Labor Party Conference, an event which would generally entertain us with party infighting and power struggles. But this year there is a whiff of electoral success and the more feisty delegates have reigned themselves in.

Despite Labor’s socialist roots Rudd has easily taken party policy to the centre, and focussed on watering down Howard’s draconian industrial relations laws and going soft on nuclear development in Australia.

In an effort to drive wedges into the ALP conference, Howard has come out hard, ramping up rhetoric on bot these issues. To make his point, Howard had to move into extreme territory; anything for a headline.

Given the current economic climate he might well have shot himself in the foot. The economy, on paper at least, looks good at the moment. But figures released at the weekend show a slightly different story.

Housing prices are moving up steadily, for example, but not across the board. Blue ribbon Liberal seats are booming. But out in the mortgage belt where the Liberals hold many marginal seats prices are dropping, and so is support for the government.

For a government primarily campaigning on economic prowess the Liberals are losing support in their hard won marginal seats. Howard’s increasingly hard line on non-economic issues are not helping his cause.

On the nuclear issue Howard has left himself open to public fears of nuclear reactors in the suburbs. Yet he is talking up the nuclear option while denying issues of climate change which are already having dramatic effects across the country.

As the courts continue to punish employers who implement some of the more extreme aspects of the IR laws, Howard’s troops are feverishly working on amending legislation to close off legal challenges.

Like most voters, Australian’s don’t like any form of extremism and Howard is being pushed to extremes.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

First up I must say that I have no real right to delve into the US constitution. I’m not American or a constitutional lawyer. But having stuck my toe in these troubled waters, and been attacked for how others perceive my stance, I will follow the advice of Lysander Cadwalader (The right to kill indiscriminately"), and clarify.

The difficult concept, apparently, is that I hold that some provisions of the constitution are anachronisms, if interpreted in their original form. For example, the 2nd amendment was framed in an era of slow loading and largely inaccurate arms.

There is no doubting the intentions of the founding fathers, within the culture of their time. But that aside, the 2nd Amendment relates to a well-regulated militia as well as an associated right to bear arms.

I doubt the US government would entertain any militia, well regulated or otherwise. Yet they fail to address the issue of dangerous assault weapons in the hands of crazed nuts. Speaking of nuts, I can agree, to a small degree, with this self confessed gun nut:

First and foremost—it’s about handguns and concealable firearms—not long guns, shotguns and rifles. The National Rifle Association (NRA) must be reminded of its middle name. And let’s not blame the victims. It’s the shooters. Yes, there may be some peripheral blame to distribute, but keep it in perspective. Confessions of a gun nut
by Tony Bouza

I’m not so enamoured of the NRA position:

People are often surprised when I tell them that the National Rifle Association is a civil rights organization. It's true. The Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is a civil right. And what's more, it's the right that protects all the others.
Sandy Froman: an immediate past president of the National Rifle Association of America

The ability to exist in a relatively safe and secure society must equally be a civil right. The problem with these anachronisms, out of time and place, is the conflict they set up between various civil rights.

So here we have the right to bear and used modern assault weapons while we put aside the provision for a “a well-regulated militia”. Let me remind you of the words of Thomas Jefferson:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Is there not a conflict in those several statements which are held so dear in the US?

Trading carbon for votes

I never fail to be amazed by just how shallow people can be, in their view of the world. Australia’s Prime Minister Howard is never surprised. I think his motto is never underestimate the stupidity of the masses.

Under intense electoral pressure for the first time in a decade, Howard has reached deep into his bag of tricks and pulled out the ultimate lowest common denominator.

“Maintaining economic prosperity — rather than climate change — was Australia's great moral challenge,” according to the PM.

"The moral challenge of our time is not vastly different from the challenge earlier generations faced, It's to build a prosperous, secure and fair Australia — a confident nation at ease with the world and with itself. It's to give every generation of Australians the chance of social mobility."

Any economic prosperity which ignores the threat of climate change will be little more than a dancing mirage at the edges of our bone dry landscape.

Economics focused on money alone is not economics. To ignore the wider setting, in Australia that includes the dwindling availability of water, is hardly likely to enhance our lives in any way.

So Howard is setting out to dupe 20 million or so with the false hope of abundant riches. I wonder what the rest of the world must think of that. Greed usually wins out and simplistic argument seems to be a winner.

I wrote recently of the endless shiploads of coal being shipped out of Australia: Trade at the coalface Great for national prosperity perhaps, though I doubt that, the trade is feeding the rapidly growing Asian markets with dirty energy.

Australian of the Year and science commentator, Tim Flannery , recently offered to hand his honour back because the Howard government refuses to engage on climate change issues. I expect it was Howard’s latest comments (above) that riled Tim.

Tim can put a simple case, but of course he can’t make a politicians promise of bags of cash. Dreams of wealth are sexy, the nightmare of what we are doing to our planet just does not rate.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Now for the bad news

I tend to wake early and by 6 am someone here has the morning network show, Sunrise, on the TV. For the most part I ignore, but five minutes before it ended today, at 8 am, there was a newsflash: An incident has occurred in Iraq involving Australian soldiers. A media conference is scheduled in 30 minutes.

Now honestly, that signals some pretty hard news at the tail of the country’s most respected morning show. An hour later, after the media conference had been shifted several times, I went to the SMH. The news?

Bomb injures Australian troops Two Australian soldiers have been wounded in a roadside bomb blast in southern Iraq, the Defence Department said today.

The injured men were from the Australian Overwatch Battle Group West and were on patrol on a road north of the town of An Nasariyah in Dhiqar Province yesterday.

A department news release said the ASLAV vehicle they were driving in was "extensively damaged and destroyed by a subsequent fire''.

Following my North American experience I full expected a number of deaths. What can you say about a combatant country that still reports injuries as major news? I simply offer as a reflection.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Looking at other agents of death

In the aftermath of the Virginia shootings there have been some excellent comments regarding balance in responses. One in particular from romunov “More people die in car accidents every year, and no one is bitching about that.”

This issue has been bothering me, here in Australia, for some weeks now. The trigger was a week or so of sensational news reports, example Three dead, one missing after Sydney Harbour crash ABC Online, Australia - 28 Mar 2007.

I can have sympathy for the families involved, but the daily road carnage gets nowhere near the coverage, even international coverage, this story had. So water is swexy and roads aren’t.

Soon after we had the annual Easter death spree on Australian roads:

The New South Wales Easter road toll stands at six, while there have been three fatalities on Queensland roads, two in Western Australia and one in the ACT. Victoria's road toll for the holiday period was six. Tasmania, South Australia and the Northern Territory remain fatality-free.

The numbers were broadcast throughout the period like a sort of horse race. Can we beat last years record? The only incident sensationalized was:

Three special operations troops, who had survived combat in the world's major trouble spots, died when their car crashed as they headed back to their base at the Swan Island military exercise site, southwest of Melbourne.

The rental vehicle veered off a bridge between Queenscliff and the island, and plunged into the water at high tide

No great carnage, just fuzzy shots of divers and their boats. Again, water is cool, but showing the reality isn’t.

26 people dead, over the few days of Easter, isn’t nearly as compelling as a school massacre I guess. It is just something we accept.

The interesting part of the Easter road deaths is that those jurisdictions in this country with the toughest road laws still had the highest number of deaths. I have not done a per capita, but acknowledge the larger populations.

While on death

Another ‘value of life’ issue making waves here is euthanasia. We were recently treated to our new federal Minister for the aging championing palliative care as a valid alternative to a rational choice to a dignified death.

At the same time we are seeing evidence that patients live somewhere between three and six months in palliative care. Part of the problem is that nursing homes are profit motivated and vastly understaffed. Not much dignity in that system.

The link between these issues is the way our societies make their judgements. Few, it seems, have any great respect for the value of life. The gun deaths are regrettable, deplorable. But so are the many other travesties we seem to encourage by innapropriate community standards.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The right to kill indiscriminately

I am reluctant to wade into the 2nd amendment argument while the impact of the latest school shooting tragedy is so fresh. I claimed during the mid terms last years that gun control was the missing policy discussion.

But of course, like faith in biblical texts written for other cultures and other times, the gun lobby will preach that ‘their’ constitution is sacrosanct. What they fail to recognise is that the provision was created at a time when guns were crude, it does not provide for the powerful weapons of today.

You have to ask yourself why the hell anyone should have a powerful assault weapon in a school dormitory? You have to ask why any kid would have access to one at home? What sort of insanity is that?

It is a country with age limits on all sorts of activities, but lets young people of dubious emotional state, wander around with deadly weapons. Then they justify the consequent slaughter with the sanctity of an archaic right.

Australian gun buy back

Back in 1998, following a similar tragedy, the Australian government instituted a gun buy back and destroy policy. $320M to take 643,726 firearms out of the system. How effective the program was in taking guns out of the system no one really knows.

What we do know is that Australia has not had a mass shooting since that time.

On April 28th 1996, a maniac shot 35 people in Port Arthur. The media went ballistic, screaming about the evil of "assault" firearms. Australians were shocked. Nothing like this had ever happened in sleepy, peaceful Australia. - Sen. H. L. Richardson, (Retired)

Bullshit Sen Richardson retired! Australia, sleepy as you might think, had a long and painful record of indiscriminate mass shootings. As a former Tasmanian the port Arthur outrage was especially painful. Because of the people I personally know who were scarred during the cleanup of that massacre I am highly offended by this sort of crap.

But no less offended by the fact that many others who have died in these stupid acts have been wiped aside by the former senator.

The majority of Australians, sleepy, left wing or otherwise, agreed that there was simply no justification for high power firearms to shoot ‘varmints’!

Let me be clear though. I support gun control. I don’t claim it is totally effective, but it does serve to impose some limits. For example, most people in Australia understand how moronic it is to have these weapons in any setting. It is a bit like smoking I guess, guns carry a social condemnation.

By retaining the 2nd amendment the US is actively endorsing the use of the weapons in inappropriate ways. There is no justification and those endorsing gun use should stand as guilty as the actual shooters if these outrages continue.

I went and had a look at the amendment: A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

I can se defending against tyranny, but not your bloody girlfriend and random others. That has nothing to do with a well regulated militia or defence!

I would add: Amendment IX: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

What about the right to go to school, the mall or anywhere else safely? There are always conflicts in societal rules, but Americans really need to think about what is really important to life and happiness.

This is not just a cute sentimental issue for God’s sake. People are being killed needlessly because of a stupidly held right to possess inappropriate weapons.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Trade at the coalface

A near-record 153 ships sat idle, offshore yesterday, cluttering ports in NSW and Queensland. The port of Newcastle reports more than 68 ships waiting to be loaded with coal. Earlier this year, the build-up reached more than 75.

The ships - destined for markets in Japan, Korea and China - are waiting up to 25 days to load 14 million tonnes of coal, worth $850 million to the economy.

Two new infrastructure approvals will allow capacity at Newcastle, the world's largest coal exporting port, to more than double, to 209 million tonnes a year.

Strong demand, along with delays and recent flooding at some mine sites in Queensland, is contributing to the massive ship queues along the east coast. There are also fears that a rapidly increasing Indonesian supply will cut into Australia’s coal exports.

One NSW mine will shed 79 jobs because clogged port facilities in Newcastle have forced it to scale back its coal export production.

The Chinese government-owned Austar underground mine near Cessnock in the Hunter Valley plans to axe 56 permanent jobs plus another 23 contractor positions from late June.

Trade Minister Warren Truss says the long delays at Newcastle and at ports elsewhere in Australia are an embarrassment.

An embarrassment, not least because of the massive volumes of coal being shipped out of Australia amid global warming fears. While John Howard is pushing to develop nuclear power in this country, using another resource we have in abundance, he is still pumped up over the coal export trade.

The opposition Labor Party are locked into coal exports as well, as they rely heavily on a trade union base. So we get the political doublespeak on climate change and Australia still has no clear commitment greenhouse gas reduction.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Howard's HIV plan. Positive?

reality-based educator left a comment on a previous post "Tired Government Syndrome":
Howard now wants to ban HIV+ people from emigrating to Australia. Asking for thoughts.

No problem RBE, except where to begin. Bare in mind John Howard spent 30 years trying to gain power, and after a decade it is seriously slipping away from him. We can track Howard’s grip on power to his cynical use of populist clap trap.

At the moment Howard and his Murdoch buddies are failing to land a blow on Labor’s Kevin Rudd, so it seems we go I to panic mode; role out the scary monsters early to try and claw back fear based support.

But the fact is, regardless of anything Howard might say, Australian Immigration already screens immigration candidates on health related issue; as do most developed countries. The US, Britain, Canada would all be likely to refuse HIV positive applicants.

The real reason is not the possible spread of the disease, but the potential economic burden on national health systems. Howard is merely using his normal tactic of identifying a weak link, a misunderstood situation, and driving the public perceptions and prejudices.

The tactic normally works to galvanize a lightweight swing back to his government. He did it with boat people, he did it with the unemployed, he did it with Australian indigenous people, he is doing it to young unwed mothers. The weak and disposed aren’t hard to pick.

I believe it is called; win at any cost! But while this distraction is going on, Howard is ramping up deployment in Afghanistan. Oddly with the disclaimer that this is our most dangerous mission because our enemy does not respect life! We fuck me, I thought it was war. But it seems we are sending a bunch of caring soldiers who will kill people to prove they respect life.

A Murdoch rag, The Australian, ran the following, warm explanation for Howard’s latest moves:

Howard wrote to Pakistan's military dictator, President Pervez Musharraf, in February. The tone of the letter was emollient and friendly, but it bore a heavy message. Howard likes Musharraf. They talk about cricket and the Commonwealth. There is a kind of Sam Browne belt quality to their relationship.

Howard admires the way Musharraf turned Pakistan around after the 9/11 al-Qa'ida terror attacks and made it into an ally of the West in the war on terror.

The Australian reported, in the same edition:

Howard has written to Pakistan's military dictator, imploring him to do more to stop the flow of Taliban forces into southern Afghanistan in an effort to reduce the threat to Australian troops being sent to the region.

All I can say is that if bullshit was music John Howard would be a one man military band!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Tired Government Syndrome

Some months back I was caned for supporting a Democrat win in the mid-terms. Caned for not talking about the shortcomings of the alternate majority.

I accept that, but now I’m feeling like the shoe is on the other foot. I’m not totally wrapped in the alternative; but any thing other that Howard!

Having said that, I will try to take a step back to a non partisan analysis as I did when I wasn’t in exile.

In recent weeks Australian politics has become increasingly personal as the Coalition has launched its campaign to destroy Kevin Rudd's credibility (the Labor alternative.).

Labor leader Kevin Rudd and the Seven Network say reports they asked Vietnamese authorities to hold an Anzac Day dawn service early so it could be broadcast live on television are fabricated.

[Murdoch’s] papers said Rudd's office and the television network hatched a plan for a dawn service at Long Tan, Vietnam, to be shifted an hour earlier to take advantage of peak morning TV ratings in Australia.

It was Easter Monday here and I was up early and caught the particular ‘peak morning’ show in question. The presenters were bloody furious that what they saw as well considered presentation should be cast as a political scandal.

Presenter, David Koch was furious: Perhaps like you, I woke up on Easter Sunday this morning to see a screaming headline that we're somehow trying to undermine the Anzac spirit, by staging our own "dawn service" in Vietnam for Kevin Rudd's benefit. I couldn't believe it. The story was totally from left field.
I thought you deserved an explanation.

As you know, I've long had a passion to tell wartime stories. I think it's crucial that younger generations get an understanding of earlier sacrifices. It's for that reason we went to Kokoda last year.
It's for that same reason that we started talking to Vietnam veterans about visiting Long Tan this year. We were briefed at our office by a group of men who fought. They wanted us to travel with them.

If you want the story from Koch, please follow the link. But my point is that this is just the last of a series of desperate attempts to head off the growing popularity of the Alternative. Put another way, the Howard government is going into panic mod and screwing nearly every effort to stop it.

Anzac Day is probably the major ‘religious’ festival in Australia, not religious as such but sacred all the same. If Rudd had been guilty it would have been a good hit for Howard. But using it cynically will only speed up Howard’s plummeting support.

I am, drawn to the economic election predictor, the three indicators - the unemployment rate, inflation and interest rates.

If two or more of these rise over a full, three-year electoral cycle, the government will lose.

But I have suggested other potential. predictors, including the tired party (government).

The Howard government is showing all the signs of tired government. This has included attacks on Labor blowing back in their face, ministers sacked for misconduct and a fair difficulty replacing them with acceptable candidates and a Federal Police into some Queensland Liberal members.

Still, the NSW Labor government, economically challenged and increasingly tired, was returned with a large margin last month. Perhaps it is just a different state/federal dynamic.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Wave of fear

Early last week, along with millions of coastal Australians, I experienced being in the path of a potential tsunami.
I heard the first reports at 6 am, very soon after the Solomon Islands earthquake. Obviously details were sketchy, but the potential, as we saw from the Indonesian quake/tsunami was serious.

In the event it was a different type of quake and the tsunami was fairly local. Not to take away from that local disaster, a full on tsunami would have devastated Australian east coast communities, including my own at Port Macquarie.

Various reports at the time:

An 8.1-magnitude earthquake and the ensuing tsunami triggered panic around the south Pacific as alerts were issued of possible impending deadly waves.

In Queensland, many coastal residents evacuated their homes and fled to higher ground.

In the Papua New Guinea port city of Rabaul, residents fled as the sea drained, a possible pointer to a coming tsunami. The Australian government said a 3-metre wave struck the western Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville.

Along with all of Queensland, NSW also closed beaches along Australia's east coast were shut and ferry services halted on Sydney Harbour.

It was the first time beaches in the two states had been simultaneously closed.

A spokeswoman for Sydney Ports said some of the ships berthed at Port Botany had been sent out to sea for safety reasons. One ship that was due to sail through the heads has been told to wait another hour.

Ben Whibley, Surf Life Saving Australia's national life saving manager, said all beaches in NSW and Queensland had been closed as a precautionary measure until the potential danger had passed.

To be fair, I would have had ample warning of an approaching wave, as communities further north were progressively devastated. By mid morning the threat had not eventuated. Far north Queensland had not been hit.

But those earlier hours did create some strange feelings. Not panic so much as a trepidation mixed with curiosity. We so seldom visualize our peaceful communities facing such an awesome threat.

The debate over how authorities handled the situation still rages. Without sufficient information I believe they were right to take full precautions. It will still be some years before a Pacific early warning system is in place. But the geological activity is increasing around the north east and north of Australia.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Conservatives will win

The next Australian Federal election is tentatively scheduled for late 2007. It is a moveable feast, but October is broadly considered the most likely month because of the need to accommodate the fixed terms of the Senate. Other dates would force separate election dates; no one like needless elections.

The real point of this ramble, answering RBE, is what chance does the Australian conservative (Liberal) government have of surviving? The opposition Labor Party, under new leader Kevin Rudd, has really made a dent in the Liberal’s polling lead.

The figures below; taken over the past few weeks, show a lead. But one shrinking marginally. Rudd maintains that come the election they will probably be within a point of each other. I tend to agree with that, despite the implied posturing.

Mar. 18 Mar. 11 Mar.4

Australian Labor Party 48.5% 51.5% 51.5%

Coalition (Liberal / National) 36% 34% 33%

I can’t say I have any great preference for either, but them is the choices! Rudd is performing well, but shows conservative traits which worry me. One is playing up to the church lobby. I would prefer religion was kept well separated from politics.

But given the choices I’d love to see Howard dumped as Australian PM. It is the easy propensity to lie to gain power, delegated but absolute power that worries me most. Then I guess I’m not the only one and Australia not the only place where it is happening.

The hard part, as always, is working out if it really makes a difference.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Electoral games

Given electoral systems tend to bore most people, I've stayed away from them for a while.

However, reflecting on the recent NSW (Australia) election I really am
appalled by just how much democracy can be diminished by skewed systems.

The most important aspect of the recent election is the Legislative Assembly (or lower house) from which government is formed. The house is elected under a systemcalled optional preferential.

When voting for the Legislative Assembly you must place the number '1' in the square next to the name of the candidate to whom you wish to give your first preference vote. Optional preferential means that voters have the option of allocating further preferences, allowing an ‘if not my first choice then I prefer xxx.

The anomaly of this method over the earlier exhaustive preferential, where all preferences must be marked, it that it becomes de facto first past the post voting. The justification to adopt this diminished democracy is that voters become confused if they have to fill out more than one square. Most voters seem to agree and be happy to give their rights away.

The Legislative Council is an anomaly in itself, but the voting method really raises questions about relevance. The Council consists of 42 members elected to serve a maximum of two terms (8 years) of the parliament.

Each four years half the house faces election. The method is proportional representation and the whole state is one electoral district. That creates the ‘table cloth' ballot paper (right) required to accommodate the hundred or so candidates.

Now if voters get confused marking four or five boxes on the lower house ballot, the table cloth is a nightmare.
More so because candidates are selected by the backroom boys and very little information is ever given out about them.

So we use the pig in a poke method and allow voters to tick just one box above the line. Effectively the parties and independents lodge their own preference list so that the electoral commission can determine the flow from the single box method.

No surprisingly there has been little news on the Council results. The house is undemocratic but it is also irrelevant. I might come back to that one.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Big Frogs

Here is one for all the amphibian fans, including Blognonymous (Kvatch) the blog frog.

A conservation group has captured a giant cane toad in the Darwin, the capital of Australia's far north.

The critter weighed in at 840 grams (1.8 pounds) and measured 20.5 cm (8 inches).

These ugly toads were introduced from Hawaii in 1935 at the urging of sugar cane growers in Queensland who were suffering from an infestation of crop-damaging beetles. The cane road rapidly established itself as one of the most costly alien invasive species in the history of Australia.

I first saw sugar cane fields recently as I came down to Port Macquarie from Queensland. I've done the trip before, but at night, so this time I actually saw a bit of landscape.

I had also seen a number of the toads some years back in southern Queensland. They are ugly, and invasive.

I'm not really sure how far ‘Port' is from the cane areas, but 500 miles sounds fair. The toads are now moving into areas around Port, but more troubling is that they have reached as far as Darwin.

This giant one is a male, which makes it doubly interesting. Usually the males are far smaller than the females. But the amount of native wildlife it devoured to reach that size has researchers concerned.


I'm trying to get hold of a poster of frogs native to the Murray-Darling river system. They are not all as pig ugly as the above toad. But most of them are becoming threatened as the river system dries out.

In fact I did find the poster on line at: The Store I guess that screws any chance of me doing a bulk purchase and making a profit.